Fit City

By Hannah Wallace February 1, 2011

Check your laces—sneakers snug?

Now take a deep breath in the pre-dawn air, dense and salty. It’s still too dark to see much, but you can hear Sarasota Bay lapping against the downtown marina seawall. Above the waves, there’s another sound, too—voices. This is not a lonely morning stroll. This is our city’s daily pilgrimage, made by hundreds, across the Ringling Causeway that arches over Sarasota Bay. People call it “walking the bridge.” The parade starts before dawn and doesn’t stop until well after sunset.

It’s about energy, exercise and the endorphin-fueled euphoria of everyday life in the beautiful, healthful place that’s Sarasota, Florida. 

It’s 5:30 a.m. now. Some people are already halfway to Bird Key. Time to get marching.


Something funny is happening to Sarasota’s stereotypes—retirement haven and tourist hub. Our retirees these days don’t necessarily come for the gardening; they may come, as art consultant Rebecca Donelson and her husband, noted economist Robert Blattberg, recently did, to wind and kite surf off Bird Key. Yes, the couple loved Sarasota’s cultural offerings, but the opportunity to indulge in their favorite sport helped close the deal. “We travel the world wind surfing,” says Donelson. And Sarasota, she says, has some of the best wind surfing around—just minutes from their new home. Tourists may be drawn by the beaches, but they’re also diving into the Gulf at the sound of a starting gun, off on the first leg of one of Siesta Key’s triathlons.

Sarasota is becoming a fitness utopia, where senior citizens stroll a 5K and the kids practicing at the nearby ice skating rink are Olympics-bound. Fitness is what motivates many locals to roll out of bed before sunrise in the morning, a major mode of networking for folks of all ages and a selling point to the elite athletes who buy homes here. And soon enough, fitness may be a leading economic driver in Southwest Florida—maybe even our ticket out of the recession.

It shouldn’t surprise us, really. Sarasota’s biggest selling points, the same qualities that feed our retirement and tourism industries, also happen to be fitness-friendly: perfect weather and beautiful scenery.

“We see dolphins and manatees on our runs. Where else can you do that?” asks Pat Jones, a Cincinnati native who with her daughter owns Southside Village’s Fleet Feet Sports. The nearly three-year-old specialty athletic shoe store offers running courses for everyone from first-time 5Kers to veteran half marathoners. “Some people in our training programs come from an hour away,” says Jones. “And in the summer, we start at 4:15 a.m.”

Patty Larsen sees dolphins and manatees, too—as her paddleboard skims the surface of Sarasota Bay. The 50-year-old former model has hopped aboard this latest local sports craze, which devotees say builds strength and balance while giving them a gorgeous perspective on Sarasota’s world-famous assets. Almost every day, Larsen launches her board from her bayfront home and spends an hour or so blissing out on the bay. “Sometimes it’s like walking on water,” she says. “It feels like a religious experience.”


In the last five years, fitness opportunities for part-time athletes of all ages and ambitions have exploded. Here are just a few signs of the times.

>> Orange County, Calif., native Kristen Horler moved her Baby Boot Camp headquarters here in 2005 and immediately gathered stroller-pushing packs of local mothers, stopping every quarter mile to do squats and lunges.

>> In 2009, Rob Butcher, head of U.S. Masters Swimming, moved the headquarters for the 50,000-member amateur organization to Sarasota; the same year, the YMCA-based Sarasota Masters swim team (which Butcher promptly joined) won the national championship. (The Y’s youth team has won 10 consecutive Junior Olympic Championships.)

>> In Chicago, Steven Staley led a social sports network of more than 6,000 people; he founded a similar network when he moved to Sarasota in 2009, and after just one year, Staley’s SoCo Sports (short for “Sarasota County”) includes 10 leagues, from kickball to flag football, and more than 400 participants—many of them young professionals who play two or three sports a week, in the process developing friends and business contacts.

>> Pro boxer Aaron Jaco credits his four-year-old Uppercut Boxing and Fitness with starting the local boxing craze. Prominent businesspeople now flock to local gyms for quick—but intense—boxing workouts. (Homebuilding mogul John Cannon puts the gloves on at least three times a week.)

>> And the First Watch Sarasota Half Marathon caught the attention of Dallas-based U.S. Road Sports, which purchased the event two years ago. USRS race organizer (and Miami resident) Javier Sanchez compares the Sarasota race to the Disney Marathon, where racers bring their whole families and “make a vacation of it.” He raves about the welcome he’s received from local officials. This year’s race, which is expected to attract 3,500 participants, will start and end at the city-owned Van Wezel parking lot, and he’s received permission to “take over” the Ringling Bridge for the highlight of a famously beautiful race course.


Once Sarasotans started pounding the pavement and hitting the heavy bags en masse, athletic retailers took note. Choosy national companies that don’t open just anywhere opened here, and locally based start-ups quickly earned national attention. It took the Joneses a full year to go through the selective Fleet Feet franchising process; theirs is the company’s only store on Florida’s west coast. In 2010, downtown Sarasota welcomed yoga clothing specialist lululemon athletica, whose near-cult following includes celebrities like Eva Longoria and Megan Fox. It’s only the ninth lululemon store in the state. Last year, footwear specialists Fit2Run and On A Shoestring, which opened in 2005 and 2006, respectively, both ranked among the top 50 running stores nationwide.

Apparel, equipment and activities—now there is no excuse not to find your fitness fit.

OK, maybe you didn’t come here to work out, but Sarasota can do strange things to a person. Something about year-round bathing suit weather makes people want to get into great shape. “Everybody wants to look better than their neighbor,” says boxer Jaco.

Or maybe you just feel better than you thought you would at your age. Fleet Feet’s owner Jones, who is also a nurse and took up running in her 40s, says most of her store’s customers are referred by medical professionals. People in their 70s come in looking for specialty sneakers, maybe to alleviate back or joint pain, and wind up joining one of Fleet Feet’s running programs; the oldest participant in the 2010 Sarasota Half Marathon was 82. So much for slow-paced retirement.

Maybe you’re still of working age and would like to build your business contacts along with your body. Never fear: Our gyms are like corporate conference rooms. Look around downtown’s YMCA branch at noon on a weekday. You’ll see an Asolo Rep actress with a personal trainer, a PR maven pounding the treadmill and a prominent lawyer working the bench press. In this town, you’re supposed to let them see you sweat.


In fact, while you’re walking the bridge, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll see a neighbor, if not your biggest client (or your biggest competitor). Stand up straight and keep those arms moving. You’ve passed Golden Gate Point, but the climb is only just beginning.


Major-League Status

We’re not just talking about an idle interest in keeping your heart rate healthy. Sarasota has long been a haven for amateur athletes—think of all the Midwestern retirees who’ve fled Northern winters to play year-round golf and tennis here. But in the past few decades, while opportunities for those amateurs expanded, we also developed a reputation for nurturing and producing the pros. A remarkable number of elite athletes and sports professionals now work here, train here and retire here. (Only instead of “fitness,” they call it “strength and conditioning.”) We have three little letters to thank for upping our status in the sports world: IMG.

What began in 1978 as the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy is now the 400-acre Bradenton campus of IMG Academies—that’s right, plural. The compound hosts seven academies: golf, tennis, football, basketball, baseball, soccer and lacrosse (the eighth, softball, is in the works). Plus there’s the IMG Performance Institute, which teaches the mental and physical keys, from vision training and nutrition to recruiting education and communication, to becoming an elite athlete in any sport. The sprawling campus on 34th Street West looks like a sports nut’s fantasy resort. Weight rooms are flanked by tennis courts on one side and a full-service spa on the other; baseball fields overlook soccer fields that overlook driving ranges—all of them impeccable. The expanses of perfect green grass make you want to take off your shoes and sprint for pure joy like you’re six again.

There’s no overstating IMG’s scope. The clientele includes professional athletes at the top of their sports—among them 2010 Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees, tennis champs Venus and Serena Williams, golf star Paula Creamer, baseball American League MVP Josh Hamilton and U.S. World Cup team goalie Tim Howard.

Ever see a golfer from Bradenton on TV? Or hear a SportsCenter report about college football players doing their pre-NFL-draft training in Southwest Florida? Yep, that’s IMG.

The academies see 20,000 athletes annually, and not all of them are professionals—yet. Up-and-comers in every sport come from all around the United States and more than 100 foreign countries to train—and, in many cases, live and attend school—within IMG’s walls. Not only do they further our standing as an international athletic destination, these kids often come attached to high-income families, many of whom purchase homes here.

“There’s nothing like IMG, where you get the training, the mental conditioning, the weightlifting—everything,” says Kylie Kaufman, a 17-year-old IMG soccer player. Two years ago, Kaufman and her parents moved here from Cleveland so she could train at IMG. “If I didn’t go here,” says the St. Stephens school senior, “I would’ve just stayed home.” Her next stop: Columbia University’s soccer team.

“Kylie wanted to play soccer year-round, and there are only a few facilities in the country where you can do that,” explains Kaufman’s father, Jim, an entrepreneur and restaurant franchisee. “I was aware of IMG for a long time, but I was less familiar with the area. It doesn’t matter [business-wise] where we live. But the weather here, the beaches—if it had been Iowa, we wouldn’t have moved.”

So far, nothing here or anywhere rivals IMG’s size; it’s considered the world’s largest multi-sport training facility. But plans are well under way to give Manatee County a second massive, multi-sport athletic compound. Though still in the funding stage, the Springbok Sports Club and Academy has tagged 340 acres in Lakewood Ranch for its flagship Florida campus. Like IMG, Springbok plans to offer elite academies, including baseball, basketball, soccer and tennis, plus other sports not accounted for at IMG, such as gymnastics, polo and volleyball.

Also in the works: an international rowing facility at Nathan Benderson Park near University Parkway and I-75, where college and high school regattas have already drawn thousands of athletes and their families to the area. When complete, the park will be able to host international competitions at the highest level. Developers promise that this facility, too, will be unlike anything in the country.

But future plans aside, even now, IMG is far from the only game in town.

Row after row of batting and pitching cages steal the spotlight at Extra Innings on Cattlemen Road, and each crack of the bat is likely a prospective Major Leaguer working on his swing. Nearly 90 years of spring training in Sarasota have built this into “the strongest baseball community in the country,” according to Jeff Howard, a former Riverview High School baseball player who opened the 20,000-square-foot Extra Innings facility in 2010. Major League players and coaches come here for spring training, “fall in love with the weather and decide to stay,” Howard explains. “There are pros on every corner. Almost everyone who instructs with me here has Major League experience.”

In fact, we have enough local talent and demand to have encouraged two high-level baseball facilities to open in 2010. The other, Bradenton’s Strike Zone, is home to at least one baseball pro who turned Sarasota spring training into a permanent residence: John Selzler, a former strength and conditioning coach for the Baltimore Orioles, boasts “a full book of kids,” he says, who work on their skills, strength and fitness through his Opening Day Training. “They’re all aspiring to play college baseball, at least.”

Of course, the sunshine summer sports are a natural here. But perhaps you’re a Northerner who learned to ice skate before you could walk. Believe it or not, northern Manatee County is the place for you. Ellenton Ice and Sports produced not one but both U.S. figure skating pairs who competed in the Vancouver Olympics (and one of those skaters, Jeremy Barrett, is a Sarasota County native). The same rink is home to an under-16 youth hockey team that won the national championship in 2008 and finished second in 2010. And just last year, Ellenton Ice welcomed the new Tampa Bay Juniors organization, representing the only two junior hockey teams in Southwest Florida. That means promising 17- and 18-year-olds from hockey havens like Minnesota and Wisconsin actually come to Manatee County in the hopes of some day playing professionally.

When it comes to facilities, “Our biggest challenge is lack of soccer fields,” says Jason Puckett, sports manager for the Sarasota County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Last year the SCVB sponsored 33 athletic events, from the ultimate Frisbee national championships to the largest beach volleyball tournament in Florida; this year the number of events jumps to 45. “But we don’t have more than three soccer fields in one location,” says Puckett, “and that’s not enough to bring in larger events.”

That challenge will soon be surmounted. Schroeder-Manatee Ranch is creating a 22-field soccer facility near Lakewood Ranch’s Greenbrook Village community off S.R. 70. SMR CEO Rex Jensen ties the project to his company’s dual commitment to family and economic development. “A lot of businesses could use more business,” he says, adding that an annual soccer tournament hosted at the nearby polo fields generates 5,400 room nights. “That’s one tournament,” he emphasizes. The SMR fields, which will boast top-of-the-line tile drainage and irrigation systems, could be in use as early as April.

The volume of world-class athletic opportunities blurs the lines between elite athletes, hardcore amateurs and novices. “I used to think one mile was so far. I would run until I was out of breath, and I got frustrated,” says Kim Collister, who began as a novice jogger with Fleet Feet’s No Boundaries program in August of 2009. Now she and her husband are group leaders for the half marathon training program. Once you get started, Sarasota doesn’t provide a lot of excuses to stop.


You’re almost to the peak of the Ringling Bridge now. Time to pick up the pace. You’re going to love this view.


Flexing our economic muscle

Convinced yet? Local officials are. In times of shrinking civic budgets, they are investing in sports and fitness initiatives—and they’re doing it not for the physical health of their constituents but for the economic health of the region. As our traditional growth engines of construction and real estate have sputtered, they’re looking for new ways to attract residents and visitors and generate spending and jobs.

In October, Sarasota County commissioners approved a half-cent tourism tax increase to garner funds for the Benderson Park rowing project. The Manatee County Commission has granted $65,000 in incentives for the creation of new jobs at IMG. At the end of February, the Baltimore Orioles and spring training baseball fans will take advantage of the $24 million Ed Smith Stadium renovations.

And in January, Sarasota County created a new position for recreational tourism development and enlisted former parks and rec chief John McCarthy to direct researching, targeting and developing recreational products for the area.

Last year alone, the SCVB’s 33 events generated $23 million in economic impact. And that’s just spending on hotel rooms and restaurant meals. McCarthy sees a “ripple effect” from the influx of world-class athletics that will bolster industries like sports medicine, marketing and even manufacturing. He predicts equipment companies will come to utilize the state-of-the-art facilities like Benderson Park, which will boast a high-tech timing system that can be used to test new boat designs. And people who discover Sarasota when they come here to watch their kids row or play Frisbee may end up deciding to buy a second home—or a primary residence—here. Some may even move their companies to the region.

Just think about how the local economy—and our already famous quality of life—have been enriched by the growing sports and fitness industry: national retailers such as lululemon; entrepreneurs who enable our athletic impulses, like Fleet Feet’s Joneses or Baby Boot Camp’s Horler; families like the Kaufmans who could live anywhere but buy a home here for world-class training; professional athletes, coaches and trainers who come for a single sport and decide to stay, inspiring everyone to new feats of fitness. And all that growth leads to more of the same.

“I heard from the president of Sarasota Crew that in the last two years, the participation in their youth program has increased 30 percent,” McCarthy says. “They don’t even train at Benderson Park. It’s because rowing has been in the local news and on the TV.”

“Why do people come to Sarasota? Because it’s outstanding,” says race organizer Sanchez. “And there’s a lot of room to grow.”


When your trek takes you to the top of the bridge, turn around and look at down-town Sarasota. The rising sun is just peaking past the Plaza at Five Points, shining gold and orange in the mirrored One Sarasota Tower. Pretty incredible little journey, right? And this is only the halfway point. Your day is just getting started.


The Power of Play

Last year the county hosted 33 sporting events with an economic impact of more than $23 million. Here’s a look at some of them.

Event Type of Event         Economic Impact    no. of Rooms            no. of Participants

Siesta Key Triathlon       Triathlon            $204,624           385       791

BMX Fall Classic Nationals        BMX     $567,521           644       506

AVPNext/Wilson National Championship            Beach VB         $256,411           372       372

Sunshine State Invitational Show Ski Tournament            Water-Ski          $163,815           322       265

UPA Club Ultimate Championships         Frisbee $2,799,072        3,012    1,506

Sarasota Six-a-Side Festival      Cricket $266,257           236       120

College/Club Winter Training Program     Swimming         $644,044           698       344

Ringling Bridge Run VII Running            $308,987           380       2,459

Big Shot Volleyball        Beach VB         $217,003           438       332

Area 3/5 Championships Swim Meet       Swimming         $812,445           1,184    1,109

Sarasota Baseball Classic         Baseball           $754,491           1,485    773

FIRA Rowing State Championships        Rowing $624,060           256       458

Fiesta on Siesta Key     Beach VB         $163,633           206       202

FSRA Rowing State Championships       Rowing $1,979,615        1,610    1,592

Publix Triathlon Triathlon            $305,079           452       510

Source: Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau                         


IMG by the numbers

400-acre campus

32 years in operation

7 sports and the IMG Performance Institute

20,000 athletes annually

700 full-time students

600 full-time employees

150 full-time coaches

56 tennis courts

13 soccer fields

3 full-size baseball fields; 4 practice fields

12 batting cages

15 practice mounds

18-hole golf course, double-sided driving range, putting greens, multiple target greens for chipping/pitching

3 lacrosse fields

3 football fields

2 basketball courts

10,000-square-foot weight room

4-lane track

2 pools

1 full-service wellness spa

2 pro shops

2 dining facilities and multiple snack shops

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